Randall said American Birthright was modeled off state standards in Massachusetts and Florida. The group received input from dozens of right-wing groups and activists, including the Claremont Institute, the Family Research Council and Moms for Liberty. Randall sees it as a bipartisan alternative to coursework that he described as hijacked by liberal concepts. Critics, though, say it’s biased toward the right — for example, it includes Bill Clinton’s impeachment but not Donald Trump’s.
The Colorado State Board of Education rejected American Birthright in October. The National Council for the Social Studies, a professional trade group for educators, issued a rare warning against using it.
“They’re trying to push a certain agenda down to these kids,” Amy Schommer, a mother in Woodland Park, said of the school board’s adoption of American Birthright. “I’m a conservative but I’m not against my kids learning something they disagree with. They’re trying to fix problems that don’t exist here.”
The district’s adoption of American Birthright had immediate fallout for an elective class called “Civil Disobedience.” Graf, the English teacher, had created the class in 2015 to trace protest movements like Black Lives Matter back to America’s founding.
Five days after the board approved American Birthright, a community member who does not have children complained to Witt about “Civil Disobedience,” and accused Graf of using “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — about growing up Black in America — as an “indoctrination tool,” according to emails obtained through open records requests.
A week later, Graf read in The Pikes Peak Courier that Witt had decided Coates’ book would no longer be used because it didn’t conform with American Birthright. Graf said no one from the administration spoke to him about how he taught the class.
Graf resigned last month. “They’re taking autonomy away from teachers, limiting the scope of the free-thinking, controversial discussions that I think are age-appropriate,” he said, “especially for 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds, who are about to go out and experience what it’s like to be an adult.”
Several more high school teachers resigned this year, citing the board as a reason, according to interviews and copies of resignation letters reviewed by NBC News. Some in the community, though, saw this as a good thing.
“I feel like if they’re leaving, it’s because they have an agenda,” said Deborah Bruner, a Woodland Park grandmother. “What it sounds like to me is that this board is going to hold teachers accountable for what they teach, and to teach the truth.”
A contentious meeting
By the time Witt arrived at Gateway Elementary School on March 2 to meet with the staff, emotions were running high.
The teachers had heard that Witt was questioning the need for mental health support for students, and they were worried.
During the meeting, Witt would not commit to keeping the same number of guidance counselors and social workers for the next school year. He said that his focus was on “academic success,” according to the recordings obtained by NBC News.
Staff members tried to explain why it was critical to address students’ emotional issues so that they could learn. One employee mentioned recent familial homicides in the community as an example of the kind of trauma children are facing, including a murder-suicide that left a student dead.